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Windows Vista Beta 1 Review (Part 2)

The Windows Vista Beta 1 desktop is visually similar to build 5048, and if you have a dedicated graphics adapter you'll notice that Aero is enabled by default. Windows feature a polished, glass-like translucent look, and window buttons light up as you mouse over them (Figure). One nice touch: the Recycle Bin visually appears to fill up with little crumpled balls of paper as you throw items out (Figure).

The taskbar hasn't changed much, but on notebook computers, you'll notice a new power management icon, which launches a nice dialog (Figure), and a new Presentation Settings icon that lets you configure how the screen behaves when you're giving a presentation (Figure) (I have no idea why that's visible by default).

A third tray icon is more auspicious and will be instantly familiar to users of MSN Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search: It's the Windows Search Engine, and clicking it provides you with quick access to the engine's configuration dialog. The search window, too, should look familiar, since it debuted earlier this year in Mac OS X Tiger (Figure). Windows Search behaves as you'd expect, but I'm going to delve deeper into that feature in a future technology showcase.

The Start menu, too, has changed little since 5048 and features the same odd mix of Windows Vista and XP icons (Figure); Windows Client Group Director Neil Charney told me recently not to fear, that all of the icons throughout Vista would be upgraded to be big, high-resolution, and beautiful. What's interesting is that some of the legacy icons--notably that for Set Program Access and Defaults--look the same as in XP but have been re-rendered in more high resolution versions (Figure).

Start menu behavior is identical to that in 5048, but it bears another look. Instead of a cascading sub-menu for the All Programs link, as with XP, Vista features a curious in-place sub-menu that replaces the left half of the Start menu. Here's how it works. When you click the All Programs link, the left half of the Start menu changes to display the Programs menu, in-place (Figure). If you click on a folder, the list expands to show the contents of that folder (Figure). This, of course, can trigger the appearance of an in-place scroll bar if the programs list gets too long, which is odd looking (Figure). When you click the Back link (which appears in the same location as All Programs), the Start menu returns to its normal state.

Because Microsoft built a search box into the Start menu, you can no longer use keyboard shortcuts to navigate around. To launch the Control Panel in XP, for example, you simply hit the Windows key and then the "C" key and, voila, the Control Panel opens. In Windows Vista, however, when you hit the "C" key, the system assumes you're searching for an application (Figure). Sigh.

Shell namespace changes

Before we delve into the various shell locations, like Computer, Documents, and Control Panel, I'd like to explain how the shell namespace has changed in Windows Vista. While the goal was to make the shell easier to navigate, my fear is that the changes will simply confuse people. I'm not a complete idiot, rumors aside, and I still find it a bit confusing. Here's what's happening.

In Windows XP and 2000, Microsoft introduced the concept of the Documents and Settings folder structure (previously, there was a Users folder in the C:\winnt folder in Windows NT 4.0). Under this folder are folders for each user account, so in my Windows XP system, I see a folder for Paul as well as a folder for All Users, which contains information that applies to, well, all users.

In XP, you also see various folders such as Desktop, Favorites, My Documents, and Start Menu under the Paul folder. And inside of My Documents, you see three special shell folders: My Music, My Pictures, and My Videos.

In Windows Vista Beta 1, Microsoft has blown most of that away. Instead of a Documents and Settings folder in the root of the system drive, you'll see a Users folder. And inside of that folder, you'll see folders for individual users (Paul and Administrator, for example) and a UNIX-like folder called Public (Figure). OK, let's navigate in a little further. Inside of the Paul folder are several folders: Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Favorites, Music, Pictures, Videos, and Virtual Folders (Figure). Note that Music, Pictures, and Video are no longer subfolders under Documents.

As with XP, all of these folders are "real" folders. That is, they exist at a discrete place in the shell hierarchy and can contain real files and folders. They are literally identical to folders in XP. However, Windows Vista, as you may know, also introduces the concept of Virtual Folders. These are not "real" folders but are instead XML-based containers for links to other files and folders. Virtual Folders do not "contain" anything. Instead, Virtual Folders point to lists of other files and aggregate data in meaningful ways.

Think back to when Windows 95 first shipped. Windows 95 let you create shortcuts to documents and folders in more easily accessible places (typically the desktop). In the same vein, Virtual Folders let you round up related files and folders in more easily accessible places as well. But Virtual Folders are far more powerful than simple shortcuts. That's because Virtual Folders are smart--that is, they update dynamically--and because they make it easier for you to organize your data in ways that make sense to you.

Windows Vista Beta 1 ships with a number of canned Virtual Folders that address obvious needs, and some of them are available right from the Start Menu. Stupidly, some of them are named the same as "real" folders, which is where some of the confusion sets in. So when you click on the Documents link in the Start menu, for example, that opens C:\Users\Paul\Virtual Folders\All Documents and not C:\Users\Paul\Documents as you might expect (Figure). The former (All Documents) is a Virtual Folder that automatically aggregates all of the documents on your hard drive, regardless of their location, while the latter (Documents) is the modern day equivalent of My Documents: It's just a regular folder, and when you save document files from an application like Microsoft Word, that's where they'll go by default.

This distinction is important. As I said before, Virtual Folders don't actually contain anything per se. They're not "real" folders. You can't save a document to the All Documents Virtual Folder, but you can save a document to the Documents folder. Once you've saved that file, however, it will appear in both locations (Figure). Yep, it's confusing.

Microsoft continues this naming nightmare with other Start Menu links. The Pictures link (Figure) actually opens a Virtual Folder called "All Pictures and Videos" (and not C:\Users\Paul\Pictures). The Music link (Figure) opens a Virtual Folder called "Albums" (and not C:\Users\Paul\Music).

Regardless of the naming confusing, the new namespace is a good thing and the best solution we'll have until Microsoft takes the bold (and, if I may say so, long overdue) step of ridding Windows of the limiting drive letter-based file system we still use. That's because the average Windows user will never have to worry about drive letters with Windows Vista. Virtual Folders make Windows Vista friendlier to use. In most cases.

One exception is a clean install where you intend to copy over data from a network share or external hard drive. Let's say you just did a clean install of Windows Vista and you'd like to copy over all your photos, music files, and other documents. You can't copy photos, for example, into the "All Pictures and Videos" Virtual Folder, which is what you get when you click Pictures on the Start Menu. Instead, you need to open up the "real" Pictures folder. Fortunately, a link to the Pictures folder is found in the Navigation Pane (on the left) in the All Pictures and Videos window. Similar links can be found in Albums and All Documents, naturally.

Virtual Folders are a neat concept, and like I noted earlier, Windows Vista Beta 1 ships with a number of them (like All Videos, Favorite Music, Artists, and so on). But the real power of Virtual Folders is that you can create your own. At its heart, a Virtual Folder is really just the visual results of a query against a database that contains a list of the content that is stored on your hard drive. As with any database query, you can filter down the results list to match certain criteria. And of course you can create your own queries and, thus, your own Virtual Folders. I'll look at this process in an upcoming Technology Showcase.

Navigating around the computer

The Computer link on the Start menu, as you might expect, is Vista's equivalent to My Computer (Figure). This window gives you a drive-high view of your PC, and will list any hard drives, CD/DVD drives, and removable storage devices that might be connected to your system. As with other shell windows, Computer features a preview pane on the bottom (which can be moved to the right side or hidden) and a breadcrumb bar in place of XP's address bar, which makes it handy to jump around in the shell namespace as needed. Inexplicably, some windows display the preview pane on the top and have different options available to them (Figure). There's nothing like consistency.

Control Panel has been significantly updated with a new look and feel, though it retains the category-based organizational scheme (Figure) that Microsoft pioneered in XP (and Apple borrowed in Mac OS X 10.3, see my review). In Classic View, Control Panel betrays a few new features, including an Auxiliary Display applet, which will work with the next generation of notebook computers and Tablet PCs (Figure). A new Programs applet replaces the old Add or Remove Programs and provides front-ends for adding programs, viewing and removing installed programs and updates, and other options (Figure). A new Solutions to Problems applet will apparently one day out-help Help, but right now it's pretty useless (Figure). And the Windows Parental Controls applet hints at future features, while in Beta 1 it offers just limited functionality (Figure).

Some of the functionality in Vista Beta 1 is in transition. For example, while the Add Printer Wizard is new, it can currently only find Bluetooth-based printers in Beta 1, and not network-attached printers (Figure). In other places, like Mouse settings, the dialogs are identical to those in XP.

Explorer view styles

One thing that's changed pretty dramatically is the way Explorer displays information. In XP, we got an evolved version of the Windows Explorer shell, featuring the same address bar and icon set we've come to know and sort of love. XP also added a somewhat controversial task pane, which I felt was a pretty successful attempt at adding task-oriented functionality to the OS.

Yes, the Windows Vista version of Explorer still displays icons that represent files and folders. But just about everything else has changed. The address bar has been replaced with a breadcrumb bar that makes it extremely simple to navigate around the shell namespace, and this is one feature I think users are going to wonder how they previously lived without (Figure). The breadcrumb bar works a lot like the address bar, but it gives you the ability to arbitrarily navigate back up into the shell namespace from any point.

Here's how it works. Say you navigate into a specific shell location, such as C:\Users\Paul\Documents. In order to navigate from there to C:\Users\Administrator, you'd have to hit the Back button twice, and then double-click on the Administrator folder. Or, you could edit the text in the address bar manually, your choice. In Vista, all you need to do is select the little down arrow next to Users in the breadcrumb bar (Figure) and then select Administrator from the list. Bang: You're there.

The new Explorer isn't just about a better address bar however. Microsoft has also removed the standard menu we're used to (though it's available as a "Classic Menu" choice) and has replaced it with a new bar that's sort of a combination menu and toolbar. In a typical Explorer window (i.e. one displaying files), you'll see an Organize button; which drops down a menu including choices like Rename, Move, Copy, E-mail, and Delete (Figure); a Views buttons, which lets you set the icon size and style (Figure) (quick tip: Hold down the CTRL button and use your mouse's scroll wheel to scroll between the choices automatically); a Show/Hide button that reveals and hides various UI elements, and a Share button.

A typical Explorer window now displays a Navigation pane on the left side, which is sort of like the old Explorer tree view, but is instead dynamic, showing you commonly used shell locations and shell locations that are related in some way to the folder you're currently viewing. For example, if you navigate to C:\Users\Paul\Documents, you'll see All Documents, Authors, Public, and other related folders in the Navigation pane (Figure).

On the bottom of most Explorer windows is a Preview pane (Figure). This pane dynamically changes depending on which icons are selected. If you select a text file, for example, you'll see keyword, rating, author, and size information (Figure). A music file displays album title, year, rating, duration, genre, and track number, along with an album art representation (Figure). You can resize the Preview pane, which reveals even more meta data information (Figure), or you can place it on the right side of the window (Figure) by selecting the Show/Hide button and selecting Show Preview Pane on Right. You can also hide the Preview pane if you're a purist.

There's a lot more going on with Explorer windows, but I'll save that for a future tech showcase. As a teaser, I'll just note that the Explorer in Windows Vista supports lists, auto lists, and virtual folders, and those are all things I think most Windows users will be very interested in.

Continue to Part 3...

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